If you play defense, you get to serve

We’re talking about volleyball, right?

It is taking all the discipline I have to ignore the Trumpery [1] in the White House. I think it is worth doing, though. If I don’t ignore it, I will lavish my disdain on it and very likely feel that I have done something worthwhile. I will not have.

If I were part of the Trump group, voters or Congressional allies, or new executive offense-1department players, and thought the my President had done something wrong and had entertained feelings of disdain, that would be worth doing. Costly, probably, but worthwhile.  You can spare some disdain for members of your own team without doing much harm.

That’s not where I am. I am part of a crowd that relishes every new faux pas as if it were a chocolate confection of some kind and joining in my own team really isn’t worth doing from the political side. On the other hand, it is nice to have colleagues as I notice at college football games, where the visitors’ side wears different colors than the home side and I know that feels good.

In American politics today, it is really hard to do anything meaningful. It is easy to stop action and hard to start it. It is easy to play defense—keeping the other team from scoring—than offense, where you have to find a way to score some points yourself. As I say, we need to talk volleyball.

In volleyball, you don’t get to serve unless you have stopped the other side’s attempts to score. If you have a really good defense, you can stop the other team time after time and get a chance to make some points yourself.

Defense Now

Now is the time for the Democrats to play defense. Incalculable damage is being done daily by the Trump administration. Some of it is going to be very hard to heal. This is particularly true because Trump is really not a presidential type: he is a local political boss type—not a ward heeler, maybe, but someone who organizes and deploys ward heelers. They pay money to friends to get jobs done that are not authorized and possibly not even legal, but everything is off the books, and who is going to know? You get compliance by threats and bribes, not by policy and persuasion. Does anything sound familiar yet?

offense-3That means that the Democratic opposition is wasting its time playing defense by using policy. Policy isn’t relevant yet. You beat a political machine by bringing publicity to their operations, by prosecuting them to the full extent of the law, by protecting crucial resources who are vulnerable to threats and threatening people who are vulnerable to bribes. We (Democrats) have to work harder and more consistently and with more discipline than they do and since we represent the majority of the voters so far as political outcomes is concerned, we will “win” in this limited way if we do that.

OK, back to volleyball. We won the point. Now we get to serve. Now we need to have an offense. We don’t have one.

Then Offense

In volleyball, there are two parts to having an offense. There is the setup and the spike. That’s how you get points. The setup is the context which makes the spike work. The spike is the actual scoring of the point. In political terms the “setup” can be thought of as the conceptual and institutional machinery for carrying out a policy. The “spike” is some way of selling it to “enough” people that it will be supported even though some of the effects (we will call them side-effects) are unfortunate.

offense-2This is, as I see it, the Democratic problem. Let’s take income as one example. “Income” is two problems. There is how to have enough of it spread broadly enough to sustain a consumer spending economy. There there is the distribution of revenue, which looks at who has a lot and who has only a little.

These are simple problems from a conceptual standpoint. President Nixon proposed a “negative income tax,” which, had it been adequately funded, would have solved the problem. If you make more than a certain amount, you pay taxes; if you make less, you get subsidies. Problem solved.

Or, with an income floor, such as is common in the socialist democracies of Europe, a robust safety net protects workers from the economic consequences of rapid changes in the economy. That attaches workers, unions particularly, to an economic direction if the nation takes one, and it supports a stable life without intolerable deprivation while the changes are being made.

There are two simple ways of dealing with the problem of inequality. You can restrict the gap between the pay of the workers and the pay of the managers as, according to Robert Reich, they do in Japan. Or you can allow any variance in salaries you like and tax the rich to redistribute to the poor as they do in Sweden. Either way.

Those formal solutions are conceptually simple. They are the setup.

Less Filling/Tastes Great

The spike will require some way of selling the program. “Selling” means both that enough people are in favor of it that they will sustain the elected officials in office and who will pay the taxes necessary to support it. It also means fending off the strong emotional opposition, both popular and elite, that would make every new step another battle.

How to sell such a program? And because I am not going to have a chance to go into it, let me just note that there are many such “programs” that would need to be considered. [2] Take addressing the environmental effects of our industrial practices, for one, and our need to cuddle up with dictators all over the world if they have some resource we need.


You sell a program, you spike it, by showing that it is required by or justified by values “the people” already hold. “The people” of course hold a diversity of values, which means that a diversity of appeals to those values would be required. And if you think that is beyond us, remember that Miller Lite sold a lot of beer by inventing a conflict between people who drank Miller Lite because it was less filling and others who drank Miller Lite because “it tastes great.”

We could afford to have many such “wars” in politics.

Here’s my favorite recent example. Nancy Jackson is my hero. If anyone knows how to spike the ball and win the point, it’s Nancy Jackson. See Leslie Kaufman’s article here.

Only 48 percent of people in the Midwest agree with the statement that there is “solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer”…

Like opposition to abortion or affirmations of religious faith, they felt, it was becoming a cultural marker that helped some Kansans define themselves…

Yet Ms. Jackson found plenty of openings. Many lamented the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Some articulated an amorphous desire, often based in religious values, to protect the earth. Some even spoke of changes in the natural world — birds arriving weeks earlier in the spring than they had before — leading her to wonder whether, deep down, they might suspect that climate change was afoot.

So Ms. Jackson sold the program—a program that a more systematic thinker would have said would have to be supported by a shared understanding that the world is getting warmer and that the human contribution to that effect is large—without any of that. She started with the values Kansans had—some wanted to “protect the earth,” some to be “independent of foreign nations’ oil.” These are “more filling/great taste” arguments. There is no reason for them to oppose each other. Everyone in this Kansas project is “drinking Miller Lite,” so to speak, and Nancy Jackson doesn’t care which reason they use.  Her father does, but she doesn’t.

What if it were true, for instance, that the health of wealthy people were better in societies where the discrepancy between the very rich and the very poor was ameliorated? What if it were true, in these societies, that educational attainment is higher and that rates of schizophrenia per 1000 of population were lower, and the proportion of low birth weight babies were lower? [3]

These rationalizations are not the way for Democrats to organize to redistribute wealth. There are no complaints about “the evil 1%” here. [4] This is not a program for “income distribution.” That would be what the setup is about. The spike has to do with a desire to provide better healthcare for the wealthy and better health for infants. More filling, tastes great.

This could go on and on, as you can see, but I want to bring it back to my great concern of the moment. Making fun of the buffoonery of our President is such fun and it is, after all, a team sport if you belong to the right team. And there is serious work to be done by Democratic officeholders to limit the damage President Trump can do. [5]

But that’s all defense. That’s what we have to do to get a chance to go on offense. We don’t have an offense at the moment, and I am arguing that the volleyball metaphor is a good one because it helps us picture what we will have to do when we next nominate a presidential candidate who will have a chance to serve.

[1] See Webster’s (New World Dictionary) definition “something showy but worthless” on my phone app.
[2] There are, by my count, 15 discrete (note the spelling) such proposals in the campaign book collected for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine—Stronger Together. The “setup and spike” notion could be developed for every one of them. By someone else, please; I’m your guy for the volleyball metaphor.
[3] I highly recommend Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level and even more highly his TED lecture on the same topic. The data he uses are ordinary everyday publicly available data. What Wilkinson has done is to show that the results do not vary consistently between rich and poor nations, but between highly unequal and less unequal nations.
[4] I just caught, in typing that, the similar sounds from the Lord’s Prayer. When Jesus prayed that we should be protected “from the Evil One,” was that a misunderstanding by Matthew. Maybe Jesus meant “the Evil 1 (%).” How can we know for sure?
[5] I nearly always remember to say “President Trump.” I want the office to continue to be respected because I expect to see someone respectable in it soon. And it might not be a bad example for people who called Michelle Obama “that black bitch” and who are prepared to take offense at whatever you might like to call Melania Trump.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to If you play defense, you get to serve

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